The key to sporting success: a traumatic childhood?

[Patriotic bias alert] The achievements of Team GB should make us Brits proud. Perhaps the most memorable moment of Rio 2016 was watching Olympic triathletes Alastair and Jonny Brownlee finishing in gold and silver, before collapsing in a brotherly embrace. We normal folk wonder how these athletes manage to rise to the top, while the rest of us let our bikes rust in the shed. Are these superheroes born with the genes to make them world champions, or do we all have the potential to win a gold medal, given the right opportunity?

The question that has always puzzled the greatest minds: the Spartans, Romans and Ancient Greeks all believed that physical strength was inherited and would ‘dispose’ of infants deemed not fit enough for their tribe. On the face of it, it seems their suspicions were well-founded: there is no shortage of families who share sporting ability, such as the Brownlee brothers, Williams sisters and Murray brothers. Some people seem to be born with incredible sporting potential: US swimmer Michael Phelps, for example, is 6 foot 4 inches tall, has huge flipper-like size 14 feet, and can stretch his arms out to an incredible 6 foot 7 inches. (If you need something from the top shelf, then he’s your man.)

Michael_Phelps_conquista_20ª_medalha_de_ouro_e_é_ovacionado_1036416-09082016-_mg_6640_01When it comes to getting fit, it seems that for some of us it is a continuous uphill struggle. If you and your best friend started training, say for a 5k race, then one of you would get fitter faster. Even if you ate identical diets, did the same exercises, and had the same starting fitness there will always be a difference. Research shows that about 1% of people get incredibly fit quickly, while a similar number make hardly any progress despite their best efforts (most of us are somewhere in the middle).

You might think that this difference in athletic ability is written in your genes, but modern research says that this is only a part of the picture. Strangely, only 20-50% (depending on which research you read) of these differences appear to in depend on our genetics. Scientists have trawled through thousands of athletes’ DNA on the hunt for ‘fit genes’, but have come up with little. For most athletes, the path to gold may actually have more to do with life’s circumstances than the DNA you were born with.

Research now says that your personality has a huge impact: top athletes tend to be confident, competitive, optimistic, mentally tough, and have ‘adaptive perfectionism’ – the ability to strive for perfection while learning from failures and not stewing over mistakes. The opportunities that you are given in childhood and early adulthood are also key: Team GB dominates cycling because of top-notch training, and great facilities; while African nations that have few sporting venues are focus on long-distance running events.

Laura TrottMost fascinatingly, it is our childhood experiences that separates the Wiggins from the wannabes. UK Sport researchers uncovered that nearly all super-elites (those who are repeat gold medal winners) have experienced trauma, death, or disease in their childhood – whereas those who don’t quite reach the top often don’t. The super-elites discovered sport as a positive emotional outlet earlier in their life. For example, Bradley Wiggins had a violent, drug-abusing father; Laura Trott was born with a collapsed lung and suffered childhood asthma, and doctors told her to exercise; Mo Farah was a Somalian refugee who immigrated to the UK at eight-years-old, unable to speak a word of English. In Mo’s instance, a school teacher spotted that he was good at running and the rest is history. For these winners, they tapped into their resilience and determination to beat everyone else. It’s a lesson to us all that life’s greatest challenges can sometimes give us the strength to do incredible things.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons: Mo Farah, Michael Phelps; Flickr CC: Laura Trott

Article by Stuart Farrimond

September 2, 2016

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at or his poncy personal website Here's his .

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